Poor Translation: The Unconsidered Risk

Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines risk as the possibility of loss or injury. For companies, understanding risk is vital to health and well-being of their business. Risks must be identified and managed from day one, from starting the business, to running and growing the business. One risk that companies don’t always identify is translation risk. Companies that fail to appreciate the impact of poor translations are risking their entire business.

The cost of translation

Companies must always consider costs and benefits of every decision. This rule certainly applies to translation. Businesses may ask themselves “How much does translation cost when the more important question they should be asking themselves is: How much does a poor translation cost? Indeed, even though the costs of poor translation may sometimes be difficult to quantify, they are likely to be considerable.

What is a poor-quality translation?

Errors in translation are obvious indicators of poor-quality translations. But an error-free translation may still be considered substandard. Translations that are characterized by poor style and inappropriate register, as well as those that lack of clarity and readability could not be considered as high quality.

The tip of the iceberg

A company must consider the costs of quality translation against the costs of poor quality translation.  Research has shown that the cost of poor quality is substantial. The full extent of this cost is also often not represented in companies’ accounting. Some of these costs are visible, but a significant portion of these costs is hidden beneath the surface. This is the so-called “iceberg-effect”.


What are some of the risks related to poor translation?


Product risk

Poor translations of product descriptions, user’s manuals, instructions can all lead to the misuse of a product. A group of 47 knee-replacement patients in Germany learned first hand the unfortunate consequences of poor translation. The German surgeons did not understand the English phrase “non-modular cemented” on the packaging of the American-manufactured prostheses. The prostheses were implanted without cement, contrary to instructions. Patients subsequently had to undergo a second surgery to correct the error.


Legal risk

The example given in the previous paragraph is also a good example of legal risk. As a result of poor translation, the hospital in Berlin faced the possibility of 47 medical malpractice lawsuits. Indeed, the smallest mistranslations can have incredibly high costs. The European Union faced legal action in 1993 from a German company concerning regulations for “sour cherries”. This had been incorrectly translated in the German version as “Süßkirschen” (sweet cherries) instead of “Sauerkirschen” (sour cherries). The EU eventually won its case, but not before having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal and court fees. 


Reputation risk

The cost of a badly translated text in terms of image cannot be quantified but must be taken very seriously. Customers that are unable to use a product correctly as a result of poorly translated instructions will not repeat his purchase. A patient considering treatment will not entrust her health to a hospital that cannot properly use its own equipment. In some ways, the immeasurable, intangible damages to reputation as a result of poor translation may be greater than the measurable, tangible damages since the impact of a damaged reputation is much more far-reaching and can persist into the future.

And of course, there are instances where poor translation might not pose any particular risk, but can still cause undue harm. In Southern Delaware, signs posted at public playgrounds stated in English: “Parental or guardian supervision is required for the use of this playground equipment. Play at your own risk.” Even in English, the message wasn’t very friendly. But in Spanish, the signs had been translated as “You should have a permit to play in this field. Violators will be susceptible to police action”. Once the error was discovered, the signs were immediately taken down, but not before provoking much ill-will in the Spanish-speaking community. 

Do you have any stories about translation risk? Share them with us in the comment section below. Next week, we’ll discuss effective ways in which companies can manage translation risk.